The State of Veteran Suicide (2022)
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
America’s Warrior Partnership (AWP) recently released a striking report concluding that the veteran suicide rate is 2.4 times greater than the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) estimates. According to AWP’s findings, 22-24 veterans ages 18-64 commit suicide each day and 18-20 veterans in the same age group die per day by self-injury. Combined, this points to at least 40-44 veterans taking their lives every day.
As our nation dedicates the month of September to suicide awareness and prevention, discussing the disproportionate rate among our service members should be a high priority.
It’s no secret that veterans face unique challenges, from transitioning to civilian life to accessing quality care and receiving well-deserved benefits. Yet the extent of these difficulties is not highlighted enough.
Mission Roll Call recently commissioned Pinkston to conduct a research survey on Americans’ attitudes regarding a range of veterans issues. Taking responses from a nationally representative sample of nearly 2,000 U.S. adults, the online survey found a large number of Americans do not believe veterans get as much support from the government as they should.
In fact, 53% think the government has not effectively addressed or assisted veterans with suicide prevention. Further, 60% believe veterans deal with post-traumatic stress (PTS) a lot more than their civilian counterparts, and 40% say suicide ideation is a lot more common among veterans. Those who know a veteran or someone currently serving in the military are even more cognizant of these challenges.
Even so, veteran suicide should not be solely viewed as a mental health issue that can be solved through counseling and prescription medicine alone. This approach is far too short-
sighted and not sufficient to address the array of circumstances contributing to suicide ideation among active duty service members and veterans. That being said, some veterans return home with physical and mental scars that can heighten the risk of PTS, depression, anxiety, or other combat-related health issues. While there’s no one cause that leads to suicide, these problems can factor into a person’s thoughts of self-harm and suicide.
If half the population can see that we’re failing our veterans, then we must come together as a nation to solve this issue — and raising awareness around the veteran suicide rate is only the start.
Our service members need more than simple recognition for their time in the military, they need appropriate support from our leaders and their communities. It’s time to do more to stem the tide of veteran suicide. Together, we can do better. Here’s a look at the state of veteran suicide in 2022.
In this report on the state of veteran suicide in 2022, we’ll discuss the following:
How many veterans commit suicide?
The VA released its 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report in September. The publication analyzed suicide rates among U.S. adults and veterans between 2001–2020. According to the data, there were 6,000 or more veteran suicides per year during that period. In 2020, the suicide rate was reportedly 57.3% higher than that of non-veteran adults, though the VA estimates there were 343 fewer veteran suicide deaths that year than in 2019.
A Department of Defense (DOD) report released in April 2022 shows that suicide among service members is at its highest rate since 1938. The numbers are increasing among women especially. Around one in six service members is female and in 2020, servicewomen accounted for 7% of military suicides — up from 4% a decade earlier.
More concerning is that there is reason to believe these numbers don’t give an accurate picture of our veteran suicide crisis. AWP recently worked with the University of Alabama and Duke University for its Operation Deep Dive (OpDD) research initiative, which examined the deaths of service members in eight states, and found that the number of veterans suicides is significantly higher than the VA’s count.
Focusing on those between the ages of 18-64, the OpDD study looked at 850,000 death records over a five-year period starting in 2017. It concluded that states undercount veterans’ deaths at a combined error rate of 25% and that at least 40-44 veterans are taking their lives each day — a drastic difference from the VA’s estimate of around 17 per day.
Despite these figures, which indicate that the VA may underestimate the real rate of veteran suicides, the pressing need to establish proactive prevention strategies is all the more apparent.
The Operation Deep Dive statistics underscore the need for greater suicide prevention efforts for our veterans. It should be a wake-up call across our nation that the men and women fighting for our freedoms are often burdened with trauma that goes unaddressed. Whether it’s difficulty in navigating benefits, combat-related wounds, mental stress from witnessing traumatic events, adjusting to life post-deployment, or lack of community — our veterans are facing way too many hurdles in civilian life.
Do veterans of the Global War on Terror have a higher suicide rate?
The Global War on Terror (GWOT) was initiated to secure our nation and combat extremism throughout the world after the devasting 9/11 terrorist attacks. An estimated 3 million Americans served in the GWOT, with operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and elsewhere. Due to unprecedented war environments, a staggering number of GWOT veterans have suffered traumatic mental and physical wounds, with studies showing they are taking their lives at a higher rate than veterans of previous wars.
Last year’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, after 20 years of fighting, was a painful end to America’s longest war for many veterans and active duty service members. The operations there resulted in the deaths of 2,218 service members and left 20,093 physically wounded. And for those who returned home, there’s no way to truly quantify the mental scars that are ever-present.
Brown University’s Costs of War Project, released in 2021, took a look at suicide rates for veterans of the GWOT (or what the project refers to as the “post-9/11 wars”). The study found that while suicide rates among non-veterans have been increasing for the past 20 years, the suicide rate among active service members and veterans of the GWOT is outpacing average Americans. Among GWOT veterans between 18-35 years old, the rate is 2.5 times that of all civilians and double that of civilians the same age.
The project estimates that 30,177 active duty service members and veterans of the GWOT have died by suicide, compared to 7,057 service members killed in combat or other war operations. These high suicide rates are attributed to multiple factors, some inherent to fighting in a war and others unique to the circumstances of the GWOT. For instance, the war in Afghanistan had a high prevalence of roadside bombings and hazy lines between safe zones and battle zones.
Across the board, the GWOT saw a rise in improvised explosive devices (IED) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) impacting service members. All of this can elevate the risk of PTS and other mental health challenges. Moreover, the war’s protracted length, coupled with the American public’s disinterest as time passed, has left many to wonder what their service was for.
It’s also important to note that some of the GWOT veterans who have died by suicide did not all serve in combat roles. This suggests that the circumstances leading to their suicides went beyond the common dangers associated with war and could have been attributed to less-mentioned factors like moral wounds, sexual traumas, and the impact of military culture.
What are the leading causes of mental health issues among veterans?
Many Americans are facing mental health challenges today in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic stressors, along with a number of other factors. Considering the intensely dangerous environment many service members encounter, it’s easy to imagine that they may be at greater risk for certain mental illnesses, and plenty of research confirms this. Service members often face ongoing exposure to traumatic incidents, stressors, and threats. As a result, mental health-related symptoms and issues that disproportionately impact veterans include:
Post-traumatic stress (PTS)
Substance abuse disorders (SUDs)
Symptom of traumatic brain injury (TBI)
Improvements in protective gear and medicine have increased survival rates among injured soldiers, yet those who survive often return home with serious physical and psychological trauma. And while suicide should not only be looked at through the lens of mental health, veterans are at a higher risk for PTS than civilians. The condition usually develops after exposure to traumatic incidents like natural disasters, war catastrophes, or other life-threatening events. It can cause severe emotional anguish, mental stress, and decreased quality of life for veterans.
PTS has come to be known as the “signature wound” of the GWOT. The VA reports that 11-20 out of every 100 veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) – in Afghanistan and Iraq – experience PTS symptoms in a given year. Moreover, an estimated 22% of all OIF and OEF combat wounds were brain injuries, which can lead to issues such as depression, fatigue, anxiety, and memory loss.
The fact that veterans face distinct barriers to accessing adequate mental health treatment is only exacerbating these challenges.
Data from the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research shows that less than half of veterans in need of mental health services receive treatment. Of those who do receive treatment for major depression and PTS specifically, less than one-third are getting proper evidence-based care.
This makes a big difference. The VA reports that among veteran suicide decedents, the percentage with recent Veterans Health Administration (VHA) encounters increased from 26.2% in 2001 to 39.7% in 2020. It means that veterans committing suicide over that period were more likely to have received VHA health care.
There have also been growing concerns about mental health stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the VA, current COVID-19-related data does not indicate an impact on veteran suicide mortality. However, the VA’s 2021 analysis noted that all-cause mortality among VHA patients increased during COVID-19 — including those without diagnosed mental health conditions — and exceeded the number of deaths directly associated with COVID-19.
What can you do to prevent veteran suicide?
Although there are many efforts toward suicide prevention and mental health for veterans, the U.S. government can be more proactive in addressing these issues. The VA’s budget has increased by $253 billion since 2001, with a greater commitment to veteran suicide prevention initiatives, but 114,000 veterans have still taken their own lives over the last 21 years. There’s also plenty of room for everyday Americans to get involved because, as these statistics make very clear, the current status quo is not enough for our veterans.
Without the proper support from their community and the government, many veterans turn to harmful coping mechanisms and are more likely to die by suicide. To further turn the tide on this, we need to take a holistic approach that not only focuses on access to mental health care, but also on tailored employment retention programs, improvements in transition assistance, and greater funding for community providers specializing in veteran needs.
In May 2019, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order called the PREVENTS Initiative, with the aim of equipping state and local governments with the resources necessary to identify and intervene in situations where veterans may be at risk of suicide. Prior to this, the VA and other federal agencies would expect or rely on veterans to self-identify when dealing with suicide ideation. The initiative dedicated $73.1 billion toward veteran health services, with $18.6 billion focused on mental health care.
The current administration has acknowledged a need to do more for our veterans as well. In an April address, President Joe Biden spoke on the disproportionate suicide rate among veterans, noting that the number of veterans committing suicide each day — drastically outnumbering those killed in combat in 2020 and 2021. Calling it a "tragedy," he promised to implement a plan to bring down the rate of suicide among service members and veterans by launching a new network of specialized care providers and call centers to connect veterans to care that is "consistent, comprehensive, and high-quality."
In 2020, the Veteran Crisis Line (VCL) system was incorporated into 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and Congress has pushed for bipartisan legislation that would devote more funding to improving veterans’ health care and other services.
Our government still has a long way to go to fill gaps in veteran care, but as individuals, there are plenty of ways to step in. Mentoring veterans in your community, especially those transitioning to civilian life or seeking employment; organizing support groups; volunteering for a veteran-serving organization, or providing discounted services to veterans and their families are all great ways to get involved. Along with Mission Roll Call’s efforts, organizations such as Stop Soldier Suicide and Mission 22 provide invaluable resources — not only for veterans dealing with suicide ideation but for concerned family and community members as well.
Knowing a veteran is also likely to make a difference in being aware of their needs and being moved to serve in some way. Our Pinkston-led research survey showed that while 42% of Baby Boomers know a veteran, only 24% of Gen Z adults do.
Positive relationships can significantly impact mental and physical health, yet with each generation, fewer people have connections to veterans. It is important to find ways to bridge this generational gap, whether through volunteer opportunities for young people, educational initiatives, or other cross-generational programs.
This month, as we raise awareness to prevent suicide across the country, let’s make it a point to highlight and service the needs of our veterans. In reflecting on the somber 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, it’s only right that we commit to providing the necessary care for those who have fought to secure our nation.